It was the prawns that did it. Lifelong friends were seated opposite one another and all that was all they had left to talk about. The prawns.
Friend 1: “What are you doing?” she asked disapprovingly.
Friend 2 “Shelling all the prawns, so I don’t have to keep getting my hands dirty.”
Friend 1: “Right.” She looked on with even more disapproval. “Why don’t you do them one at a time while you’re eating.”
Friend 2: “I’ll keep having to get my hands dirty.”
Friend 1: “Right.”
Friend 2: “Does it matter?”
The question was followed by an uncomfortable silence. They were both staring at her prawns, crustaceans that had suddenly been elevated to more than mere dinner conversation. Those listening to the conversation were also staring at the prawns — and then anywhere else so as to avoid eye contact. I buckled under the pressure and decided to go to the buffet to break the tension.
The two friends had been slowly antagonising each other all week. When they had started their trip together they had both seemed really excited, sitting on the small tour bus, chatting avidly until the initial thrill of being away fell to the usual mundane quietness of a long, bumpy journey over the difficult dirt road terrain.
Then one shifted across to the single seat on the left. To get more space. And escape the sun. But it was noted, even among the other passengers — strangers, thrown together in that Big Brother way that you are on a group sightseeing tour. And, as other members of the group started to gel together, the two friends struck up conversation too, just not with each other.
I guess it isn’t unusual to watch relationships fall apart on the road, be it friendships, couples or families. Travel always has a potential ‘make or break’ quality for people forced to spend prolonged periods of time in close quarters.
Couples often use trips abroad to test their relationship with a ‘let’s see how we get on when we’re on holiday’ logic. Travel gives you a microcosmic view of how you behave when confronted with stressful situations, new people, challenging cultures and so on. It can bring out the best in you and equally the worst. From drinking too much and losing your passport, to trying to talk to the locals or just commenting on someone shelling their prawns.
I’ve long held the notion that wherever you are, whoever you’re travelling with, eventually pack mentality will take over. Before you know it, the group dynamic has is driven by a Lord of the Flies mindset, with one person forced to adopt the mantle of ‘outcast’ as the other members of the group single them out.
And more often than not, it’s the little things a person does that quickly escalate to become the irritant factor. Person X, for example, is always late whether it’s for breakfast or an outing. It’s what they do. It’s their thing. Your initial indifference on the first occasion is soon replaced by a nagging irritation.
In a more relaxed setting, when you’re only meeting up, say, once every two weeks, this isn’t such a problem and can even be a point of amusement. But when you’ve hauled yourself out of bed before dawn to catch a bus to make that perfect sunrise/temple service/early plane, their umpteenth late appearance becomes a hanging offence. And even if your verdict isn’t capital punishment, you can’t help but consider that extra half an hour you could have had in bed.
Knowing a Person X means you have to take into account this trait — and apply conditions to the friendship, such as a 15-minute wait-rule. Over a course of time, Person X may soon become a friend you once knew. The problem is, we might not realise we are travelling with a Person X until we’re well into a 14-hour plane ride with them. And then it’s too late, as you’re a captive audience to their lateness.
So, back to those prawns. They were shelled, the food was eaten and the friends were soon friends again. But the truth is, this was only due to a late group addition.
Two new friends had joined them for the last leg of the trip. And one of them was simply far more annoying.
Published in Mar/Apr issue of National Geographic Traveller 2011